Monday 22 January 2018 marks exactly 100 years since the death of Sir John Wolfe Barry, the man who built Tower Bridge, London. He died peacefully at his home in Chelsea at the venerable age of 81.
His lifetime is commemorated on this website, the culmination of a project that started many years ago. It is also commemorated on a window in Westminster Abbey, below which lies the tomb of his famous father the architect of the Houses of Parliament.
At the time of his death Sir John had achieved many things in addition to building Tower Bridge between 1886 and 1894. He had been President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the 1890s, a famous organisation celebrating its bicentenary this year. He was credited with founding the Engineering Standards Committee at the turn of the 20th Century, which eventually became the British Standards Institution, home of the Kitemark. He was pivotal in helping to establish the National Physical Laboratory at around the same time.
Less well-known about him was the fact that he chaired the Board of the telegraph companies which were eventually to become Cable & Wireless. His close business partner for many decades was Henry Brunel, younger son of Isambard K Brunel. Sir John took over the lease of the Brunels’ house in Westminster, London and made it his own family home before he moved on to Chelsea.
Finally, Sir John’s civil engineering consultancy eventually became part of the same company which helped build the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at the time of writing the world’s tallest building.
There are 13 days until we commemorate the death of Sir John Wolfe Barry, one hundred years ago.
The play on words in the title of this blog is obviously to do with the number thirteen, but also allows me to tell you a bit about Sir Benjamin Baker.
Baker was a close friend and business associate of Wolfe Barry and like John was also President of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He is most famous for designing and building between 1883 and 1890 with Sir John Fowler the iconic Forth Rail Bridge in Scotland, which still stands and functions as it was intended.
The steel for the bridge was supplied by William Arrol, who also provided the steel for Tower Bridge and the Connel Bridge, both built by Wolfe Barry.
Benjamin Baker went on to design and construct a number of docks with Sir John including the Royal Edward at Avonmouth near Bristol. Subsequently he built the new Aswan Dan in Egypt to tame the Nile, no doubt well informed about the nature of river currents and movement of sediment.
Like Barry, Sir Benjamin has a stain glass window commemorating him in Westminster Abbey.
The name of John Wolfe Barry first came across my path when I was doing voluntary research for the Bristol Industrial Museum (now called the M Shed) back in the 1990s.
That led me on to a Masters in Social Research specialising in the History of Technology at the University of Bath, supervised by Professor Angus Buchanan OBE (author of an excellent biography of IK Brunel). My first research project for the Masters was on the history of the Port of Bristol. Within that I looked at plans to develop the port first begun by Brunel in the 19th Century and ending in the construction by John Wolfe Barry and Benjamin Baker of the Royal Edward Docks at Avonmouth, opened in 1908 by the monarch himself.
I was struck by the fact that JWB, as I would refer to him, seemed very confident in his knowledge about dock-building in the complex tidal environment of the Bristol Channel. But then he seemed a very thorough man from reading his technical reports. Many years later when I saw his testimony to the Parliamentary Committee investigating plans for a bridge across the Thames, recorded a decade or more earlier, I sensed the same confidence in his abilities as a civil engineer completely familiar with building structures in and across rivers.
Finally, the fact that a window in Westminster Abbey above the grave of his father commemorates his life, appeared to confirm that he was highly respected by his peers.
Since I’ve produced this website about the man who built Tower Bridge, perhaps it would be reasonable to ask why there is such global interest in the structure? Here are 10 reasons:
- It symbolises London. This was used to much effect during the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony.
- It is a must see for those millions of tourists who visit London every year for its history, together with the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral.
- Many people are fascinated by a bascule bridge which you don’t see very often and even if you have seen one, not on this scale. IK Brunel’s son Henry was closely involved in its design.
- Tower Bridge spans the River Thames with many other famous bridges (including London Bridge, but not the original one) and is the furthest east of those to be found in Central London.
- You can take a boat trip along the Thames and if you travel far enough eastwards towards Greenwich (where the Meridian is to be found) you will have to pass under Tower Bridge.
- The Thames Footpath is a great walking and cycling route along England’s most famous river. If you continue west starting at Tower Bridge you will eventually pass Kew Gardens, Hampton Court Palace, Windsor Castle and Henley on Thames (where the summer regattas take place – John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel, the builders of Tower Bridge, loved rowing on the Thames).
- Of course there are some die-hards like myself who actually love Tower Bridge as a working bridge built in the Victorian era.
- Perhaps you’ve made the bridge with a Lego kit or using Meccano and want to compare your model with the real thing?
- Or you’ve watched a movie/film/TV programme which has featured it, for example one from the James Bond series (www.007.com).
- Then there’s the off chance that you might bump into a member of the Royal Family on the bridge on their way back to the Tower of London where they all live … 😉
I’ve written about the man who built Tower Bridge but not included any images of the bridge itself, apart from a photograph I took which is in the top frame of these pages.
Tower Bridge itself has many images on its website and videos on its You Tube channel.
The Institution of Civil Engineers has photographic archives of civil engineering structures and people over time. These include the below pictures of Tower Bridge under construction in the 1890s which should be attributed to ICE if used elsewhere.
London Metropolitan Archives has many images of the bridge under construction and subsequently, which can only be displayed elsewhere at cost. Perhaps over time I will add some of them. LMA also has a You Tube channel.
Wikimedia Commons has many free images of Tower Bridge one of which I’ve selected below with attribution. The bridge at night is particularly impressive.
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
I applied for an English Heritage Blue Plaque for Sir John Wolfe Barry in December 2015. The plan would be to commemorate the centenary of his death in January 2018 by having English Heritage put up a plaque on the building in Chelsea where he died. The process can take a long time due to the high demand for these in London where the scheme operates, and of course the current inhabitants need to be happy with a plaque.
I am sure there are many more worthy historical figures and you could argue that Tower Bridge is a commemoration of its own, plus there is special window in Westminster Abbey above the resting place of John’s famous father Sir Charles Barry, architect of the New Palace of Westminster.
I still remain optimistic that the plaque will be granted in 2018 even if not in time for the centenary which is only 3 months away now. It was short-listed in 2016 and it just seems too good an opportunity to miss.
I’m reading a fascinating book about the use of iron and steel in buildings in Victorian London. One of these structures was Tower Bridge which John Wolfe Barry built with his partner Henry Brunel.
You could argue it was more than just a bridge as the two steel towers were clad in stone to provide sympathetic context with the Tower of London.
This stirred up great architectural debate at the time.
Author Jonathan Clarke of the English Heritage monograph ‘Early Structural Steel in London Buildings: A discreet revolution’ explains the basis behind these disagreements on aesthetics and use of materials, which you might say characterised the professional divide between traditional architects and futuristic structural engineers at the time.